We’ve been told to be assertive, and ask for what we want – but do we cross the line when it comes to our careers? As a former fundraiser, I was taught to ask for the money – we can’t expect people to read our minds or to hand over their checkbooks. And, I’ve seen enough ‘Oprah’ by now to know that, no, I can’t expect my husband to know that, yes, I really did want to get a huge bouquet of flowers for Valentine’s Day, not just the card. The moral of the story? We’ve got to ask for what we want, or we may not get it.

And yet…

When it comes to our careers and life on the job, how much is too much to ask for? When is our asking considered bold and brave – like when the sales rep refuses to discount his product for a new customer –or clueless, like when the college grad interviewing for his first job out of college tries to negotiate for a salary that is way out of his league? Or, was the sales rep the fool, and the college grad the bold one?

Let’s face it: Asking for what we (think we) want, need, and deserve is tough. Often, it’s easier not to ask than to go for it, and then face the risk of rejection or being though of as foolish for even daring to ask. Here are a couple of asking guidelines to consider if you’re stuck on whether to go for it or not:
Don’t ask for a marriage proposal before you’ve dated. Seems like common sense, but consider the times when you may have asked for big stuff before you had built up a track record with someone first. Whether it’s forwarding your resume (uninvited) to someone who hardly knew you and asked for a job, or it’s the professional asking a new client to sign a big contract before they’ve ever worked together before, think about how well you’ve established credibility and built trust with someone before you ask.

Be reasonable. It’s one thing to negotiate for a raise; it’s another issue when the raise you’re asking for is out of proportion to industry (or company) standards or to your relative level of contribution and value to your employer. Sure, there are times when charging or asking for a higher fee may be part of your brand (you’re a luxury car, for instance), so your big price tag won’t shock the heck out of your customers. On the other hand, asking for something that goes far beyond what your competitors charge, for instance, may show your own inexperience in the industry, lack of awareness of what you really bring to the table, or an understanding of what your customers can tolerate.

Less lawyer. There is a school of thought that urges us to be direct when asking our questions: “When will you make a decision about this job/gig/contract?” “Is there any reason why you won’t be able to make a decision today?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that if people are only given a yes/no option, they’ll opt for the no. While nobody wants a negotiation or a decision to drag on forever, we need to give decision makers (or recruiters, hiring managers, customers) time and space to get back to us: “I’d like to reconnect with you next week and talk about how we can move forward/your decision/next steps. Does that give you enough time on your end?”

Ask and ye shall receive…? Maybe. Perhaps it’s more realistic to think that if we ask for what’s fair and reasonable, and done so in a matter that respects the buyer, that we’ll receive much more.

Author's Bio: 

Elizabeth Freedman is an expert in career and workplace issues. She is the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself and The MBA Student’s Job-Seeking Bible, and was a 2005 finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. Elizabeth runs a Boston-based career-development and coaching firm; clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Reuters and The Gillette Company. To bring Elizabeth to your next association event or workplace meeting, please visit http://www.elizabethfreedman.com.